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Playing in the Dirt: Gardening for Kids
By Jacqueline Rupp

From bare trees and gnarled sticks poking out of the hard grassless dirt burst forth an explosion of blooms and buds, bugs, and wildlife. This is the time when nature comes alive, awakened by the warm breezes, from its winter slumber. The outdoors becomes populated once again with gardeners planting and digging, pruning and trimming. How appropriate that April should be National Gardening Month. Organized by the National Gardening Association (NGA), the program's goal is to "grow more gardeners," big and small. Gardening can be a great activity for children of all ages. It requires only a minimal investment but will entertain kids while educating them about the world around them.

There are many activities that you can enjoy with your children that involve gardening. Approach gardening as a treat for the senses. As Barbara Richardson of the NGA's "Kids Gardening" department says, "You don't necessarily have to get them involved in doing garden chores, but definitely let them see how much enjoyment you get from your activities in the yard and outdoors. Encourage their opinions of a flower's fragrance, that shrub's placement, or the flavor of the cherry tomatoes, and they may come around to asking for their own garden bed to plant."

Other activities she suggests include taking a family trip to a local public garden, especially one that has special kids events, volunteering at a park, joining a community garden, planting vegetables to donate to a local food bank, or browsing through a farmers' market and speaking with local growers. Later you can cook up a meal with your kids using the market food.

Richardson adds, "Talk about the differences between food that's grown near home vs. that which is shipped from far away." She also suggests unstructured explorations of the outdoors, looking, for example, at a bug's path or which flowers a butterfly likes best. Kids can also make comparisons, like which leaves look similar, which plants grow in the sun, or which thrive in the shade.

Garden activities should be personalized to a child's developmental stage for safety and interest. For preschoolers, the NGA suggests keeping it simple: Pulling weeds, collecting seeds from fruits and veggies, and playing with the dirt. The main focus at this stage should be on safety and accompanying little ones on their explorations. Teach kids at this age about their environment through simple stories. When they are a little older, the focus can shift to creating a place of their own in the garden, like a fort or special garden patch. School-aged children can begin their own garden, either indoors or out. As they grow, the garden can become more complex and elaborate using graph paper to plan the garden, learning about different heights and sun needs.

When teaching children about gardening, Richardson encourages parents to teach ecologically responsible practices. She says "using 'quick-fix' solutions to pest, weed, and disease problems sends the wrong message to kids. That's not to say that people should just use organic pest control products instead of the standard poisons -- the idea is to create a healthy system that resists attack. It's also important to show children that a few pests aren't necessarily a threat to the garden, that plants can tolerate a little bit of chewing and still produce a bountiful harvest." For more info on this topic, go to Safe Solutions to Garden Challenges at

So what are the best types of plants to begin with? You can easily buy annuals like marigolds and impatiens just about anywhere these days. They are hardy and work well both indoors and out, from seeds or already grown. To really grab your kids' attention, go for the show stoppers -- plants with great big flowers, such as the sunflower, or easy-to-grow tasty veggies, like cherry tomatoes.

The NGA also suggests the great "Atlantic Giant" pumpkin, bush cucumbers, unusual varieties like purple carrots, and "Easter Egg" radishes. Other interesting varieties include the "Mimosa Pudica.” When you touch it, the leaves close. Bleeding hearts are on the list too, since the flowers can be dissected to uncover a surprise. (Please note: Bleeding heart leaves and roots are poisonous.) For fragrance, the NGA suggests peonies, lilacs, lavender, and lemon balm. To attract butterflies, go native and plant specimens that naturally grow in your area. The NGA also recommends parsley, dill, milkweed, and thistles.

For indoor planting, a good place to begin is with herbs, such as basil, rosemary, dill, and chives. Many garden stores now sell kits containing everything you'll need. Kids' gardening tools are also easy to find, as well as specialty merchandise, like kids' gardening gloves and hats. Go to the NGA's for more information on gardening with kids. Here you'll also find more recommendations, such as for aromatic night bloomers, and activities, like making and baking a compost "torte."

When out in the garden with kids, safety is always a prime concern for parents. To make sure your outdoor projects stay enjoyable, follow these seven tips for safe gardening:

1. Avoid using toxic garden chemicals. Rather, try natural alternatives.
2. Use tools appropriate for children, like plastic rakes and shovels.
3. Test your soil for lead.
4. Always supervise your child when using water. Pay close attention when using buckets or around ponds and water features.
5. To protect against ticks and Lyme disease, wear light-colored clothing with long socks and always check yourself after gardening.
6. Use sunscreen and wear good sun hats.
7. Teach your children about poisonous plants and those that cause skin reactions. Learn to identify poison ivy and its bothersome cousins.

Gardening can be a fun activity for kids that begins a life-long appreciation of nature. As Richardson puts it, "The cycles of life -- watching a seed sprout, grow, flower, produce seed, and return to the soil to nourish the next crop of flowers -- is a metaphor kids can grasp, and relate to their own lives." She says gardening can teach kids "that there IS a world around them, and that they are part of it. All creatures on this planet depend on plants for food and clean air, even clean water. The outdoors is a beautiful place, full of adventure, to be enjoyed and protected."

Jacqueline Rupp is a freelance writer from Philadelphia, PA, who specializes in parenting, crafts, and regional topics.


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